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“Our Ronnie:” Remembering Ronald Gruen

Posted on 17 September 2009 by admin

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By Dave Sorter
Ronald Gruen, who died on Sept. 7, 2009 at age 94, was more than simply a pillar of the Dallas Jewish community. He helped build the community, fostered its growth and had a profound effect on shuls that were not even gleams in the eye when he came to town.

Perhaps his greatest legacies in the community survive at Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson, Chabad of Dallas and Yavneh Academy in Dallas, all of which he nurtured from the beginning of their existence.

Beth Torah was his home synagogue, after having been recruited to the new Conservative shul in 1974 by founders who knew of his proficiency in leading services and of his singing voice.

“For Ron, God was always close, accessible and personally interested in His creation,” Beth Torah Rabbi Adam Raskin said in a eulogy spoken at the Sept. 10 funeral at Sparkman-Hillcrest Funeral Home Northwest Highway Chapel.

Mr. Gruen designed Beth Torah’s ark and its ner tamid. Raskin told how Mr. Gruen decided that the top of the ark should feature the verse “Karov Adonai le’chol korav” (God is near to all who call upon Him).

“He explained, in a lot of shuls the words Da lifnei Mi Atah Omeid are inscribed over the ark — ‘Know before Whom you stand,’” Raskin added. “Ron thought that was a cold, terrifying verse that just did not match his understanding of God. ‘God is near to all who call upon Him. That’s much more fitting for a place of prayer,’ he told me.

“And that’s how he built Beth Torah. When he was tapped from Shearith Israel to help build a new Conservative congregation in North Dallas, he set out to construct a community where God would always be near. A place where everyone had access; where participation was not limited to professionals or a select few, but where everyone could learn the melodies, lead the service, share words of Torah and join together in the excitement of synagogue life.”

Though remaining loyal to Beth Torah until the end, studying and celebrating with Raskin days before his death, Mr. Gruen was also a strong supporter of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

To that end, he was ready to assist when Rabbi Mendel Dubrawsky came to town to open Chabad of Dallas, which in 30 years has spawned Chabad houses in Plano, Fort Worth and Arlington as well as a second congregation in Dallas.

His help merited the presentation of the Chabad Founders Award to Mr. Gruen and his wife of 67 years, Ethel, in 2003 on the 30th anniversary of Chabad in Texas.

His daughter Debbie Gruen said that his family background inspired his love of Judaism, but there was more to it.

“It’s a mystery,” his daughter said. “But it was with him strongly from his early adulthood and became stronger as he got older.”

Education also was dear to Mr. Gruen’s heart. He was a past president of Akiba Academy in Dallas and was one of the first to work toward building what would become Yavneh Academy of Dallas, the first local Jewish high school. Mr. and Mrs. Gruen established an endowment at Yavneh in 2001 in memory of their grandson Aaron, who died of cancer at age 14.

“Mr. Gruen was an amazing man,” said Deb Silverthorn, Yavneh’s director of communications. “He was an incredible supporter of Jewish learning and living; a zayde to us all.”

The Gruens continued their support of Jewish high schools by creating an endowment at Yeshiva University to help Jewish high schools throughout the United States, with a specific focus on supporting teacher salaries and special programs to help students.

Yeshiva recognized his gift by awarding him an honorary doctorate in the humanities, which he hung in his study right next to his degree from the City College of New York.

“His love of learning inspired his work in education,” Debbie Gruen said, “as well as his deep conviction that the secular and the religious were in their truest nature completely intersected, and he wanted as much as possible to enhance that reality during his life.”
Mr. Gruen was a lifetime student of Torah, Talmud, Jewish mysticism and Jewish history, and taught adult education courses. He also wrote articles on various Jewish subjects for Midstream and Sh’ma. Additionally, he was an artist, painting pictures of images from Judaism, nature, classical art themes and, as Raskin said, “images that only he understood.”

He had a great love of the Venus de Milo and of the Biblical character Betzalel, the chief artisan in the creation of the mishkan (tabernacle).

“I am quite sure that he saw himself as a direct descendant of this great biblical artist,” Raskin said.

The great love of his life, though, was his wife, the former Ethel Agatstein. They met in 1934, when he was 19 and she was 14, and

Agatstein said to herself, “This is the guy I’d like to marry.”

They did marry in 1942 in a ceremony at which the chazzan was the renowned tenor Richard Tucker, who was then a cantor and three years away from his Metropolitan Opera debut.

“Sixty-seven years was a long time, but it also seems like a dream,” Mrs. Gruen told Raskin.

They raised four children who have followed in his tradition. Son Dan, for example, continues his father’s tradition of singing at Beth Torah during the High Holy Days.

“It’s overused, but he was inspirational, joyful, iconoclastic,” daughter Debbie said. “He encouraged us to think independently and be respectful of authority. He definitely opened a permanent channel in experiencing being Jewish as something joyful, meaningful, liberating and a way of being more engaged in the world, not less.”

Ronald Gruen was born in 1915 in Czernovitz, Austria, and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1934. He graduated from City College of New York and acquired the craft of tool and die maker, eventually attaining to positions of tool-room foreman and plant superintendent.

Mr. and Mrs. Gruen and their children moved to Dallas in 1952, and Ronald Gruen established the Gruen Tool and Die Company, which soon changed to Gruen Manufacturing Company when the business specialized in precision fabrication for electronics. The family also ventured into construction and leasing of office warehouse type buildings under the names of Dart Development Company and Remington Development Company.

Mr. Gruen did graduate work in history at Columbia University and SMU.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Gruen is survived by sons and daughters-in-law Ted and Helen Gruen, and Dan Gruen and Grace Bascope; daughter and son-in-law Naomi and Brit Schlinke; daughter Deborah Gruen; grandchildren Sara Gruen, John Gruen, Michelle Gruen and Alyssa Gruen; and many loving nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.

Services took place on Sept. 10 at Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home Northwest Highway Chapel with Rabbi Adam Raskin officiating.

Internment followed in Hillcrest Memorial Park, Beth Torah Garden on the north side of Hillcrest Memorial Park.

Memorial contributions may be made to Yavneh Academy of Dallas. The family would like to express their deep gratitude for the loving care given Mr. Gruen by members of Faith Presbyterian Hospice, Home Helpers and Ms. Rickie Stephens.

“Our Ronnie”

Remembering Ronald Gruen

by Rabbi Adam Raskin
Photo: Please give credit to: David Duchan

Hesped for Ronald Gruen z”l, Yitzchak ben Menachem Mendel v’Feige
September 10, 2009; 21 Elul 5769
Rabbi Adam J. Raskin

When Shabbat departs, just before we recite havdalah, it is traditional to end the evening prayers with the words of Psalm 91.  The Psalm says:  Since he is devoted to Me I will deliver him.  I will protect him because he cares for Me.  When he calls to Me I will answer, I will be with him in time of trouble.  I will rescue him and honor him.  Orech yamim asbi’eihu– I will satisfy him with a long life, and lead him to enjoy my salvation fully.  It was Saturday night, just after those words were recited, words that could have been written for Ronald Gruen, that Nomi called me to come over to Ronnie and Ethel’s home.  These words in which God promises to answer, and accompany, and rescue and honor those who love Him…  Those words which promise long life and eternity still hung in the air when I reached Ronnie’s bed side.  And there, a most miraculous thing happened.  Ronnie was awake and alert.  Around the bed were Ethel and Debbie and Nomi and Dan and Grace and Jonathan.  For a solid hour, if not more, we all sang together.  Ronnie was so delighted…we sang songs from the siddur, Israeli folk songs, camp songs, high holiday melodies…Debbie and Nomi harmonized so beautifully, and Ronnie, eyes wide open, looked around at his precious family and smiled broadly at the music that has been a part of his life forever!  Music he taught to his children, and other people’s children.  Music he sang both in shul and at home.  Music that helped to escort his precious soul from this world to the next.  When he finally left this world on Monday night, he was again surrounded by loving family, holding Ethel’s hand as he has been doing for 67 years of marriage, and as Nomi described, “meditating in the glow of our connection.”  That connection is something so beautiful that it is almost indescribable.  Ever since Ron’s surgery three weeks ago, his children kept a constant vigil around him.  When he wanted to speak and his voice became raspy and belabored, everyone was hushed, the hospital room door was shut, so that he could be understood.  When he had something to say, one of the daughters was there with a pad and pen to record it.  When he wanted his spirits lifted, the soothing power of music was always there.  In these past several weeks I learned from you, Ronnie’s kids, the meaning of the fifth commandment:  Kabed et avicha v’et imecha…Honor your father and your mother.  I witnessed an outpouring of respect, compassion, and loving-kindness that goes to the very core of what I believe the Torah meant when it taught these words.  To all of Ron and Ethel’s children and grandchildren:  I want you to know that you gave him such an invaluable gift.  Your presence and support were unwavering…he never felt alone in these past several weeks, and I know that as memorable and significant as those final conversations and song sessions and quiet moments of just holding hands and caressing cheeks were to each of you; no one could ask for more precious blessings that these in their final journey on this earth.  In these past few weeks, you know, I heard Ron ask one question several times; He didn’t ask about his prognosis or his treatment; he kept asking “How’s Mom?”  How’s Mom he wanted to know…Is Mom okay?  Is Mom being taken care of?

Ever since he met her on a hot summer day in the Bronx over 75 years ago, he’s been inquiring about his Ethel.  What a gorgeous, elegant pair they were.  Ethel was remembering the other day when they first met.  He was 19, and she was only 14.  She was sitting in her mother Yura’s living room when this tall, strappingly handsome young man came through the door with wavy black hair, and immediately struck up a conversation with her.  Only he didn’t talk to her like she was a child.  With a British clip to his speech and a deep voice, he spoke to her like a young woman.  Ethel said she thought to herself, this is the guy I’d like to marry.”  They would meet now and again at family events-they were after all distantly related.  The family used to sit and sing Yiddish songs, and Ronnie and Ethel would dance together across the living room floor.  This was no quick engagement though…they dated and saw each other at family affairs for 8 years until one afternoon they were swimming at the Hotel St. George, which was at the time the largest hotel in New York City.  Ronnie, in his inimical way announced, “I think we’ll get married.”  “Oh,” replied Ethel, “okay.”  Not exactly a proposal, but it would do.  “When would you like to get married?” he asked.  “Well, said Ethel, how about June?”  It was already March.  Ronnie thought he’d have some more time to plan, perhaps firm up his career as a tool and die maker…but June it was.  June 21, 1942.  The chazzan at the wedding was none other than the famous opera singer Richard Tucker, who Ethel’s father called Ruby.  His Jewish name was Reuben.  Under the chuppah Ruby Tucker led Ron in the ring ceremony.  Although instead of saying I consecrate you to be my wife, Ron said I concentrate.  Ruby made him go back and say it the right way.  The truth is, they were both the right way. Ronnie certainly consecrated himself to you and only you Ethel…but he also concentrated on you so intently, so adoringly…until he took his last breath.  You were his world, Ethel, and every time you two had an anniversary aliyah, the whole congregation was inspired by your legendary love and devotion to one another.  Ethel said to me the other day:  “67 years was a long time, but it also seems like a dream.”  Looking back at that dream are countless wonderful memories of life in New York, then their adventurous move to Texas to start a new business and really a whole new life.  Wonderful memories of children and grandchildren, of leadership in synagogue life and the Jewish community, of building a successful business and cultivating incredible, God-given talents. A few days ago, I stood in Ron’s study.  It was very quiet…only the hum of the lawnmower outside could be heard.  I felt like Moshe Rabbeinu, when God said to him at the Burning Bush, “Ha’makom asher atah omeid alav, admat kosesh hu.”  The place on which you stand is holy ground.  This study was Ronnie’s sanctuary.  This was his place of creativity, of learning, of dreaming.  In one corner was the art easel that he built for himself.  A work still in progress sits on the ledge.  Acrylic paints and brushes stand ready to be put to use by his creative hands.  On every wall is another painting or piece of art that he created:  Brilliantly colorful canvases incorporating Jewish themes, themes from nature, themes from classical art, and images that only he understood.  He had a special love for the Venus de Milo…in one portrait Ronnie depicts the beautiful ancient Greek sculpture of the human form, with the words of Genesis 1:26…na’ase adam:  Let us make man.  This weaving of the secular and sacred was one of Ron’s artistic hallmarks.  On his easel, the verse from Exodus is affixed on a bronze plate:  Betzalel, ve’amalei oto ruach Elohim:  Betzalel was filled with the spirit of God.  I know that Ron had a special affinity for the Biblical character Betzalel, who was of course the chief artisan responsible for channeling both divine inspiration and artistic talent to create the Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle that housed the tablets of the covenant.  At a lecture Ron gave at Beth Torah about a year ago he declared:  “If we are descendants of Moses then we are also descendents of Betzalel.”  I am quite sure that he saw himself as a direct descendant of this great biblical artist.  His prize creations were the ark at Congregation Beth Torah, and the Ner Tamid, the eternal light that hangs above it.  He once told me that he selected the verse from Psalm 145: Karov Adonai Le’chol Korav to go across the top of the ark.  That verse means, God is near to all Who call upon Him.  He explained, in a lot of shuls the words Da lifnei Mi Atah Omeid are inscribed over the Ark.  Know before Whom you stand.  Ron thought that was a cold, terrifying verse that just did not match his understanding of God.  For Ron, God was always close, accessible, and personally interested in His creation.  God is near to all Who call upon Him.  That’s much more fitting for a place of prayer, he told me.  And that’s how he built Beth Torah.  When he was tapped from Shearith Israel to help build a new Conservative congregation in North Dallas, he set out to construct a community where God would always be near.  A place where everyone had access; where participation was not limited to professionals or a select few, but where everyone could learn the melodies, lead the service, share words of Torah, and join together in the excitement of synagogue life.  When his leadership was sought for the building plan of the synagogue, he argued that an ornate structure might make membership inaccessible and overly expensive to new, younger families.  So he advised Beth Torah to build a more modest home, again where people could easily find a way in and readily become a part of the community.  And so it was that he taught countless children and adults the melodies he brought with him from Czernowitz, melodies he heard his father Mendel sing, and melodies he himself perfected.  He called up children to sign with him on the bimah, and insisted that everyone participate together!  That legacy is forever enshrined in the culture of Beth Torah and it is a tribute to Ron that our incredible congregation thrives because of the seeds he sewed in its earliest days.  As we anticipate the High Holidays we will all invariably here your voice through the singing of your son Dan, who inherited his beautiful voice and learned his nusach from you.  We will remember you every time we gaze at the Aron ha’Kodesh, every time we bask in the light of the ner tamid.  We will remember you whenever someone leads services for the first time, whenever a child is made to feel welcome and comfortable in the shul and on the bimah.

Back to the study.  I scanned the walls and the bookcases…The Talmud, several chumashim, Encyclopedia Judaica, the classics of Jewish history by Salo Baron and Heinrich Graetz, the commentaries of Rashi, Rambam, the Midrash, the Zohar, the philosophical and literary works of the Rambam, Yehuda Ha’Levi, Moses Mendelssohn, and of course, his favorite Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel.  One afternoon in the hospital he instructed me, index finger pointing in my direction, to continue to promote and publicize the thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel, and in the same breath he appointed Nomi and Debbie to be my research assistants.  He once told me that he wanted to name the sanctuary at Beth Torah for Heschel, because of his love for him.  But wait, there’s more:  Drawing tablets, watercolor books, art references, Mozart.  On the far wall, his diploma from the City College of New York, and his honorary Doctorate conferred here in Dallas by the President of Yeshiva University himself.  On the wall by the door, plaques and recognitions from floor to ceiling acknowledging his profound generosity and leadership to Akiba Academy where he served as President of the Board, Yavneh Academy, American Jewish Congress, and Beth Torah.  What an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge, interests, and causes.  There’s more:  Pictures of his parents and grandparents; as well as his children and grandchildren.  An incredible tapestry created in Poland by his mother in 1890 hangs over his desk; it reads, Arbeitschaft Zufreiedenheit…Work Creates Contentment.  What contentment he got from his artistic work, his work in the tool and die business, his work for the Jewish community, his work to strengthen and bolster Jewish education,  and the invaluable work he did for his beloved shul, Beth Torah.

It will be difficult for many of us to imagine Beth Torah without Ronnie.  I know exactly where he would sit, beside Ethel toward the back of the sanctuary each and every Shabbes.   Ron and Ethel always referred to the committed core of Shabbat regulars at Beth Torah as:  Just us chickens.  Yesterday Paul Koch emailed me from Singapore, where he and Raye are living for three years.  He said:  “Our head chicken has been taken from the coop and ‘just us chickens’ singing together… just won’t be the same.”  My father-in-law remarked that Ethel and Ron like to sit in the back row, just so they could keep their eyes on all their chickens!  Indeed he will be missed by people of all ages.  My own son Ezra, like many of the kids at shul each week (I see some of them here today), loved running up to him at the luncheon to give him high-fives and hugs.  He had a very special rapport with children…they revered him, and at the same time were drawn to his uncanny warmth.  So many of the chevrei at shul will miss drinking a lechayim with him, and I personally will miss his weekly reviews of my sermons.  I could never mention Heschel enough.  Sometimes he would say, “You really gave to ‘em rabbi,” or “you spoke with courage today.”  Sometimes he wouldn’t say anything…that’s when I knew I was in trouble!  When I first came to Beth Torah, I received typed letters from Ron almost every week.  He would reflect on something I said, or something he read in the Jewish media.  In one letter dated December 21, 2005 he began:  Dear Rabbi Raskin, Please forgive this intrusion into your busy days.  I do it with apologies yielding to the need to share with my rabbi some concerns triggered by words spoken at a recent convention of the United Synagogue…  Ronnie, your letters, always so prosaically written, were never intrusions!  They were blessings!  They were treasures!  How I will miss your wisdom and interest and affection!  My reverence and love for you and Ethel is indescribable.  But you are now singing with the angels, and I imagine, sitting across from Heschel and next to Betzalel, learning in the yeshiva shel ma’alah…the great, house of study above.

Ronnie would want me to share something written by Abraham Joshua Heschel…and I conclude with words Heschel wrote toward the end of his own life.  In an essay entitled Death as Homecoming, Heschel wrote about the Jewish understanding of mortality and the afterlife.  He said:  “If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival.  A celebration.  The last word should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace and gratitude.  Unless we cultivate sensitivity to the glory [of life] while here, unless we learn how to experience a foretaste of heaven while on earth, what can be in store for us in life to come?  The seed of life eternal is wasted when placed on stone, into souls that die while the body is still alive.  The greatest problem is not how to continue but how to exalt our existence.  The cry for a life beyond the grave is presumptuous, if there is no cry for eternal life prior to our descending to the grave.  Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence.  He has planted in us the seed of eternal life.  The world to come is not only a hereafter, but a here-now.”

Ronnie, you have taught us all so much about how to live with such meaning, such purpose, such profound values; every one of us who knew you was transformed by having known you.  The seed of eternal life was planted in the fertile soil of your neshama, of your holy soul, and we now say goodbye to you, as you move from this world to the world of eternity.  I love you, my friend, my teacher, and I will never forget you.

Congregation Beth Torah
720 West Lookout Drive
Richardson, Texas  75080

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